Before kick-off at the Stadium of Light on Saturday evening Mick McCarthy showed his players the video tribute to Bob Stokoe that was playing on the television monitors around the ground. It featured footage of Sunderland's fairytale FA Cup run in 1973 - their fifth-round replay win against Manchester City, their semi-final victory against Arsenal and their Wembley win against the mighty Leeds. "I said to them, 'Whether it motivates you or not, it shows you what can be done'," the latter day Sunderland manager recounted afterwards.
What Sunderland did in 1973 under the inspirational leadership of Stokoe is the stuff of legend beyond Wearside and a source of reflective pain to McCarthy. "I was a 14-year-old Leeds fan at the time," he confided. "It left me heartbroken."
McCarthy's team have a long way to go to match the heroics of Stokoe's side, although old Roker romantics might point out that it took a replay against Manchester City to get the class of '73 into the quarter-final. In reality, however, the most relevant yardstick for the Sunderland team of 2004 is lodged in the more recent past.
The last time they faced Premiership opposition they were hopelessly out of their depth. Indeed, reflecting back to their top-flight submergence of last season, the result on Saturday ended a run of 15 defeats against Premiership teams.
"Sure, it's our best performance against Premiership opposition," McCarthy said, "but that wouldn't be hard, because in the Premier League we were *****."(In the interests of family reading, let's just say the description rhymed with Stadium of Light). However, on Saturday night they were more than a match for a Birmingham team unbeaten in seven matches and pushing for Europe in the Premiership. They even had Alan Hansen paying compliments not associated with a Sunderland side for quite some time: "They were neat, tidy and effective."
McCarthy's men had grit and determination in midfield, courtesy of Jason McAteer and Jeff Whitley, and not a little inventiveness too. Their equaliser, six minutes before the interval, was superbly crafted and adeptly finished, McAteer linking with George McCartney and Marcus Stewart on the left before the latter delivered a measured cross for the stooping Kevin Kyle to score with a fine glancing header.
There was more of the same quick-passing creativity in a sweeping second-half move that started with Julio Arca in the left-back position and finished with McAteer crossing from the right-wing for Stephen Wright to loft a volley over Maik Taylor and on to the crossbar. "If we play like that in our home games - against Norwich, against West Ham - we'll be all right," McCarthy mused, with an eye on a possible Premiership return.
If Birmingham play like they did on Saturday - Mikael Forssell's exquisite 29th-minute opener apart (the Finn wrong-footed Whitley and Gary Breen before rolling the ball under his right boot and beating Mart Poom, with a curling finish) - then they can probably forget about making the sixth round for the first time in 20 years, or the final for the third time(they beat Sunderland on the way there in 1931 and 1956) or about lifting the trophy for the first time in their 129-year history.
As it is, though, Steve Bruce remains on course for a little bit of FA Cup history of his own. Only a handful of men have succeeded in winning the trophy as a player and then as a manager. One of them, like the Birmingham manager, was a Northumbrian - the late and greatly missed Bob Stokoe.
Goals: Forssell (29) 0-1; Kyle (39) 1-1.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Poom; Wright, Breen, Bjorklund, McCartney; Oster, McAteer, Whitley, Arca; Stewart, Kyle. Substitutes not used: Alnwick (gk), Smith, Thornton, Williams, Thirlwell.
Birmingham City (4-4-2): Taylor; Kenna, Cunningham, Purse, Upson; Johnson, Savage (Cissé, 81), Hughes (Carter, 90), Lazaridis; Forssell, Morrison (Dugarry, 62). Substitutes not used: Bennett (gk) John.
Referee: G Barber (Herts).
Bookings: Birmingham: Cunningham, Dugarry, Cissé, Johnson. Sending-off: Cissé.
Man of the match: McAteer.
Attendance: 24,966.Reuse content